By Krista Schwimmer
During a period in America’s history, when families and individuals are still reeling from the loss of homes, when the economy has not fully recovered, and the divide between the rich and the poor is still growing, a major hotel development project along Abbot Kinney Boulevard was narrowly given the green light by the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC). After months of meetings, of fliers posted on doorways by those for and against, this block long, 67 room boutique hotel, led by developer Dan Abrams, is yet another step closer to becoming a reality. If built, however, will this hotel be good for the locals, as its proponents claim, drawing more tourist business and providing local jobs? Or will it simply be a disaster, opening the door to untold other, mega developments?
At the February monthly VNC meeting, a record crowd of about 300 people came out to address just these issues. After the chair, Linda Lucks, reclused herself, handing the reins over to Vice President, Mark Salzburg, Dan Abrams, along with the architect on the project, David Hertz, once again presented their case. Abrams stated that the inspiration for the hotel was Venice itself, promising to show case artists, to be good to employees, and to the surrounding neighbors. Hertz quickly took the crowd through the project again: the 67 rooms that could expand into 85; the 42 % of open, ground floor space that would allow people to walk through; the preservation of the current businesses there, as well as their actual facades. He said that building a hotel there would have less impact on traffic than any other kind of development. He also said they were in the process of doing a detailed pedestrian study. According to Hertz, character, mass and scale are “subjective and complex issues.” He ended by saying that the neighbors are supportive of the project.
Marta Evry then gave a fifteen minute presentation opposing the project. Evry made six major arguments against it: incomplete and misleading information on the developer’s part; violation of the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan (VCZSP); the setting of dangerous precedents; unresolved parking issues; “significant, hard, unresolved traffic problems”’: and public safety concerns for both the neighbors and the Westminster School across from the proposed hotel. Contrary to what Hertz stated earlier that evening, Marta argued that both the VCZSP and Venice Coastal Land Use Plan DOES specifically address what mass, scale, and character are. They are all “defined by measuring proposed projects against the existing neighborhoods themselves.” The AK hotel would exceed all other projects due to its 69,477 square feet and eight lot consolidation. “No one will raise a family” in these hotel rooms, she said in protest against calling this a mixed use project. In a moment of levity, Evry showed a slide of a horse painted like a zebra, saying, “Painting stripes on a horse does not make it a zebra!”
After Marta’s presentation, Mark Salzberg stated that because Marta had given a fifteen minute presentation against the proposal, he would now allow fifteen minutes of comments in favor of it. Protests rang out, causing the chair to exclaim, “everyone is not going to be heard” tonight. After the fifteen minutes, he would then alternate comments against and for the motion. In light of the fact that the developer had already given a fifteen minute presentation first, the decision to give fifteen more minutes to their side seemed hardly fair. It was a night, however, where fairness would be questioned more than once!
Robin Murez, who once had her sculpture garden on Abbot Kinney, began the arguments in favor of the motion to approve the project. Like others, she called it a tourist attraction; and, like others, she trusts the work of David Hertz. She stated that for the past twenty years, locals have not supported the businesses on Abbot Kinney – she could attest to that. So, she thought the hotel fit with the people who were coming to the Boulevard. Others also expressed that the developers have not only been listening to the community, but have made changes in response to them.
Once comments opened up to those opposed to the project, however, it was evident that much of the community is not only against the project, even revised, but vehemently so. One man said it would “overwhelm the neighborhood” and be “a disaster”. Both Tibby Rothman and Caroline Rios were concerned that consolidating eight lots would set a long term precedent. Sue Kaplan, Chair of the Mass, Scale and Character Ad Hoc Committee, stated the FAR would be a 200% increase, and that their shadow studies were not accurate.
Mark Kleiman reported on a Town Hall meeting at the Westminster School which had been attended by LUPC member, Robin Rudisill. Rudisill said that dozens of parents told her they had never heard about the proposed hotel. Kleiman called LUPC to task, saying that “the chair of LUPC has not complied with a Public Records Request” for either the hotel or for another development project, 1414 Main Street, making him question what else the the LUPC Chair could be keeping from the VNC or from the people.
The motion to approve the project passed: 9 in favor, 7 opposing, and 1 abstaining. Those that did vote against it often reflected the concerns of the community, one member saying “we could end up with a hotel corridor.”
The battle is far from over. The city has still yet to weigh in on this boutique hotel. Although the developer and the architect have worked with the community over 16 months, there are still unanswered questions. Where will employees that work there actually live, considering no one is building any affordable housing? What abut other projects in surrounding cities, such as Santa Monica, in relationship to this one? How will traffic be impacted when considered as a whole? Is this a time in our nation that we should be building boutique hotels with spas instead of providing homes for those being continually pushed out of that market?
During the public comment time, Luke Jones, a supporter of the project, said “better the devil you know.” I ask you, Venice, do you agree? Abbot Kinney was a romantic dreamer. Although much of Venice has changed since its inception, let’s continue building Venice from the seeds of vision, not of fear. Let’s all of us dig even deeper and come up with a vision of Venice that is more reflective of the spirit of Venice – a spirit that includes more than excludes; a spirit that reflects the intentions Kinney had for this community.
By Krista Schwimmer